Minn. youth learn how food goes from farm to fork

Published 1:16 pm Saturday, August 13, 2011

MINNEAPOLIS — This summer’s volatile weather has made gardening a challenge. However, that’s not deterring Twin Cities young people in the Youth Farm and Market Project.

Five hundred young people ages 9 to 18 are gardening at more than a dozen locations around the metro area — planting, tending and, soon, harvesting vegetables. They bring what they raise to kitchens and learn how to cook.

The program has 13 gardening sites around the Twin Cities, amounting to a total of two acres of land and a greenhouse on the west side of St. Paul in cooperation with a school there. There’s no cost to participants.

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The youth gardeners sell produce at neighborhood markets and directly to some restaurants. The program continues during the school year with sessions on food preparation, nutrition and marketing along with field trips to farms, food banks and other locations.

Teachable moments sprout like fresh shoots at the Hawthorne Youth Farm and Market Project garden site in Minneapolis.

Site director J.P. Mason quizzes a squad of young gardeners about what’s needed to prepare a bed for seeding.

The answer he’s searching for is the word “compost,” but he gets a different, maybe better “c” word from 11-year-old Hailey DeLuca-Davis.

“What’s the other thing we put in the soil when we planted this spring, Haily?”

“Ah, calcium? Confidence,” said DeLuca-Davis. “We put confidence in with our plants, our plants will grow.”

And then moments later, another teachable moment sprouts.

Again it’s DeLuca-Davis, the gardener with confidence, who sheds her shoes, wriggles her toes in the garden soil, but expresses apprehension about eating the zucchini blossoms they’re harvesting and will prepare as part of lunch.

“Sounds disgusting. I mean exotic, yes, exotic,” DeLuca-Davis said.

“Good girl! Disgusting is not a word for food,” said Amanda Stoelb, another Youth Farm and Market Project staff member.

She and Mason guide the young people through tending the jungle-like growth of 50 or so different vegetables and fruits in the Hawthorne neighborhood plot.

Planning started last year.

This past spring, the young gardeners turned the soil, planted, watered, weeded, and they’re proud of their work, Stoelb said.

“They feel like it’s theirs,” she said. “You can notice young people eager to give farm tours to people who show up, and eager to talk about what they’re doing. And that speaks to the ownership they feel.”

The Hawthorne plot is next to Nellie Stone Johnson community school.

Youth gardener Sergio Arredondo, 13, said he and other Nellie Stone Johnson students recycled their food scraps to make compost for the garden.

“We made good soil, and good soil is bringing good crops,” Arrendondo said.

The morning harvest of green beans and zucchini blossoms winds up, and the gardeners amble off to the kitchen at nearby Farview Park to make lunch.

The clamor of searching for measuring cups and utensils is soon joined by the sound of a mixer, churning through dough for cookies. The main course is gorditas, a thicker, fatter version of a tortilla or burrito.

The gardeners-turned-cooks get their instructions, gather knives and cutting boards and begin slicing garlic and onions.

The dough is less than perfect, and Arredondo says he’ll call on an expert for remediation.

“I see my mom make them,” Arrendondo said. “So when she makes gorditas I’m going to see if I can help her.”

The Youth Farm and Market Project got its start 15 years ago in the Lyndale neighborhood in south Minneapolis. The first garden was created after a neighborhood drug house was closed and demolished.

The Lyndale neighbors still lease the spot to the project for a nominal fee, and now there are others around the Twin Cities and demand for more.

On the surface, the Youth Farm and Market program at the Hawthorne site is laid back, as adults and youth joke and tease.

However, those who show up are expected to work. Out in the garden, biology lessons about plant life abound. In the kitchen, there’s math at every turn when recipes are doubled or halved.

J.P. Mason believes the young people, all of them city kids, are learning by doing.

“They’re able to hang out with friends, laugh, get dirty … seeing bugs, other sorts of types of things they typically don’t engage with in other day-to-day activities,” said Mason.

The Hawthorne Youth Farm and Market Project harvest will peak soon, and the goal is a community dinner prepared by youth and adults for 200 guests.